Observations on Media Activism
by Dr. Clark-Parsons
October 16, 2019
Dr. Clark-Parsons is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Activism, Communication, and Social Justice at Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her teaching and research revolve around feminist social movements in the United States and their media practices, drawing on her own participation in and observations of contemporary feminist media campaigns. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
frank: I would love to talk to you about your focus on feminist social movements and media practices. But particularly, digital media and social media, in both positive and negative ways.
Rosemary: Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that. Always.
Right now I am post-doctoral fellow in activism, communication, and social justice at the Annenberg School for Communication which is at University of Pennsylvania. I just wrapped up my PHD there over summer, and I sort of came to this research interest through a long-standing interest going back to college in gender in media. I was really interested at first in focusing my research on media representations of women, girls, and other gendered bodies.
But I found that that research area was so depressing and kind of stagnant. We know that the state of affairs when it comes to media representations of gender is pretty bad and has been pretty bad for a long time. That's where the story ends on the research side of things.
I was interested in turning toward the activists who are trying to do something with media to change the state of affairs when it comes to gender and power and representation. So, that's essentially how I got into my interest in studying activism.
frank: How did you end up combining them?
Rosemary: For me the answer came through a research method that we call ethnography which essentially involves participant observation. The data collection method comes from actually being involved in and participating in the thing that you're studying.
That meant getting involved with grassroots activist groups in the city of Philadelphia.
frank: What have you found effective in both your research and your activism?
Rosemary: A lot of my research has been focused on the fact that there are both strengths and weaknesses to using any sort of communication tools, whether we're talking about digital, or analog, or non-digital tools, for activist purposes. All of these tools have a fair amount of limitations, but a lot of the discourse in the early days of the internet was this is how the revolution is going to happen.
Twitter and Facebook, these were how we were going to change the world. But now we're seeing a shift toward identifying the fact that while there are many affordances to using these tools and we've seen some really powerful campaigns, there are also some serious limitations. I'm interested in how feminist activists are figuring out how to negotiate between those or take advantage of the good while also dealing with the downside of using some of these tools.
frank: What are those limitations?
Rosemary: One of the biggest limitations actually comes from one of the biggest strengths. Now we no longer need to have access to a big name organization, with lots of money, lots of people power, resources, and experience to launch a movement. And on the one hand, that's great. We can launch a big protest without requiring the same degree of physical organization. We don't have to be meeting for months at a time in person to organize some kind of political action whether that's a street protest or a boycott or what have you.
So, while we can launch an action really quickly, sometimes we have issues in these movements with long term struggles for social justice, with responding to new challenges as they emerge.
frank: One thing that keeps coming up in terms of effective activism is having very clearly outlined goals. With the ease of social media we can quickly gain a lot of attention but just as quickly forget the true desired outcome. How do you think people avoid that? What sort of leadership or communication does that take?
Rosemary: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that's another issue that comes from this sort of double-edged sword of doing digitally networked activism. On the one hand, if you look at hashtag campaigns, anyone can chime in and sort of bring their own personal reasons for participating to the table. I can share my story under the #MeToo hashtag, for example. But then when it comes to articulating a very clear set of, for example, policy goals, or just concrete steps toward social change, whether at the policy level or more at the cultural level, we're not seeing these movements come together to put out a mission statement. Does that make sense?
Rosemary: I think the more successful movements that we're seeing are combining the more old fashion elements of movement organizing, like meeting somehow in person together with a dedicated group of activists, organizing locally, and then also doing these sort of huge network campaigns at the same time. #MeToo is a great example of that, having both the long term struggle component led by Tarana Burke, and sort of branching off into the Time's Up movement. The Never Again movement that came out of the shootings in Florida is another great example of this as well. They're taking advantage of the participatory globally networked nature of social media platforms while also doing the difficult work on the ground to organize long term.
frank: Right. There seems to be a need for a more intense focus on the communities you're actually trying to help.
Rosemary: Yeah, I think that we especially saw this with the very impressive young activists who came out of the Stoneman Douglas shootings. You could see it play out in terms of the news coverage, the need for them to gain trust, not just within their local communities but to gain the trust of their audience. To gain respect of authorities on the issue of control despite the fact that they're these teenagers. Which was working against them.
I think trust, in terms of how you're received by the public, whether that's your immediate neighborhood, organizing for an issue on your block, or whether that's your national audience, as in the case of the Never Again movement, it's essential for social movements, and again requires some of that more old fashioned form of organizing. There were a couple of pieces written about how the teen activists in Stoneman Douglas came together and organized in the aftermath of the shooting. There's a story about them getting together at a slumber party at one of the activists houses and deciding “This is our strategy. This is how we handle the media. We cannot make mistakes, actually, because that will immediately be a reason to put us down. You know we already have our age working against us. We need to gain the trust of our audience."
Trust has always been a key component for a successful movement and continues to be. And it's become even trickier in our world of fake news and conspiracy theories circulating online. You really need to have some authority and gain the trust of your audience.
frank: What do you think about the commodification of cause? About activism as trend? I have a strong gut reaction when I see this stuff online, and think, I don't need to hear about x from you, but perhaps that doesn't matter and all voices added to the mix are important.
Rosemary: Yes, that's a great question. There are two big related changes I've seen with activism over the past five years. One is that it's becoming more mediated and the second is that it's becoming more personalized, like hashtag activism. All the people posting under the hashtag are united by the hashtag itself but they're sharing these very individualized, personalized stories or reasons for participating. That makes it really easy to coopt and commodify. When it's just this personal individual act, it's very easy to take that up and turn it into something that you can sell.
When activism becomes individualized, and personalized, it's not that difficult to make the leap between that and the acts of individualistic consumption and buying something.
We saw this unfortunately, and unbelievably to me, with the #MeToo movement. There were makeup lines branding their products with the #MeToo hashtag. We saw jewelry and clothing lines popping up around the campaign, even a whole bunch of different mobile apps. And they certainly have somewhat of a positive valance. We want to see these issues represented within popular culture, within consumer culture. But there's the danger there of suggesting that what's needed to solve a problem as big as sexual violence and sexual harassment is just this individual act of buying something rather than collectively organizing for structural change.
frank: If you have a large social presence or voice, and you want to be involved, how do you avoid personalizing everything, or avoid taking away from the movement's goals?
Rosemary: I don't think that there's necessarily anything inherently wrong in personalizing your involvement. Feminists in the U.S. have been saying the personal is political since the 1960s. The issue is keeping that connection between the personal and the political, reminding the people who are following you that your personal story is connected back to this structural issue, not just you. It's part of this, in the case of #MeToo, global issue of sexual violence.
frank: Do you feel like people, especially women who have a large voice or public presence, should feel a responsibility to contribute to the conversation, or do you think that we put too much pressure on people to fall into the categories and narratives that we would like to see them in?
Rosemary: One of the very valid concerns about the #MeToo movement, for example, is that we're putting a lot of pressure on not just women but anyone who has experienced sexual violence and harassment to come forward and tell their story. And one concern there is all of the focus is on the survivors and the victims rather than on actually holding accountable the people who are responsible for this behavior and for these assaults in some cases.
I think it can be an issue in terms of our focus on where the change and action needs to happen. We don't necessarily want to add to the weight that survivors are carrying, and we also want to be careful not to turn what is again this structural problem into some sort of media circus around individual people.
We see a lot of hype in the media, a lot of excitement, however misguided, when someone comes forward and says yet another big name renowned celebrity has committed some act of sexual misconduct, and then it becomes about the interpersonal drama.
Rather than the fact that this is huge problem that exists way beyond the scope or the story of two people. I think that there's a danger there in encouraging high profile people to continue to come forward, but at the same time, it's yet another one of these double-edged sword situations. When they come forward, they also encourage other people to feel less shame about their own experiences.
So, it's one of those sort of gray zone situations, to me.
frank: What do you think is next in terms of feminism and feminist movements? What do you think is the next big push and focus?
Rosemary: I think what seems to be on the horizon for feminism in the U.S. right now is figuring out how to take what has been for several years now a very visible surge of feminist activism that has been very much focused on the personal, on everyday fight the power and oppression, everyday encounters with sexual violence, and channeling that into more sustainable, long-lasting, efforts for social change, at the policy level, at the level of more formal institutions of power.
Because on the one hand, we're living in a moment where feminism is everywhere. We can, as we've talked about, buy feminist branded products in the store.
We live in this moment, where it's everywhere, but we also live in a moment where the reality is that Donald Trump is president and we're seeing a systematic roll back of women's rights, of civil rights, the rights in marginalized communities, on a near daily basis. So, there's a disconnect there.
Somehow, we have risen to this high level of visibility within popular culture, but we're not at the same time able to create these longer lasting institutional changes. I'm hopeful that that's going to shift, that the disconnect is going to come together a little bit more. We're seeing a lot of headlines heralding what they're calling the Year of Women. A lot of feminist candidates have been running for different levels of political office. The next big issue for these movements is figuring out how to turn that energy, turn that focus, on everyday sorts of injustice, everyday sites of power, and channel that into more institutional long lasting forms of change.
frank: What new policy for women's equality are you looking for? Or, is the change you're more interested in cultural?
Rosemary: I think we need to not lose sight of either one. I don't want the pendulum to swing too far into the direction of institutional policy and let go of some of the great work feminist activists have been doing around these more every day social forms of change. We're now more aware than ever, I think of sexual harassment as a social issue, but I think they need to be paired together. I would love to see the same amount of energy and the same amount of success in the area of shoring up our policies around sexual harassment, shoring up the resources we have for survivors who are seeking legal recourse or who are seeking some kind of transformative justice within their particular cases. We know that this is an issue that is everywhere and that's undeniable, but the question becomes now what?
We need to make sure that we're creating resources for survivors who want to hold their perpetrators accountable at whatever level, to be able to pursue that. I think that's a major issue right now.
frank: What do you feel is being overlooked right now? In terms of what your research is focused on.
Rosemary: This has been the common thread, I think, in what we've talked about already, but one point that I feel I try to make in my research is that we need to be paying close attention to this shift away from a time when big name formal organizations structured with movements which came with its own set of pros and cons. There are organizational resources on the one hand, and dedicated leaders, but then there are also all sorts of exclusion and gatekeepers filtering out who gets to participate and whose voices are heard.
We're seeing a shift away from that and towards these media platforms, actually becoming the way that movements are structured. So, whereas you might have had in the past, organizations controlling a movement's communication, today, the actual message itself, whether it's a hashtag, or whether it's a platform - these forms of media are at the center of a lot of social movements today and that comes with a whole range of affordances and limitations. I think that's a major shift that's being overlooked in conversations about the future of social organizing in the U.S. and one that I try to highlight a lot in my own work.